The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ top sturgeon biologist faces obstruction charges that allege he and his staff illegally funneled sturgeon eggs to local caviar processors during the annual sturgeon-spearing season on the Lake Winnebago system.
The DNR’s three-year internal investigation became public Feb. 10 when Ryan Koenigs, 36, was charged in Calumet County Circuit Court on one count of obstructing a conservation warden. The misdemeanor carries maximum penalties of $10,000 and nine months in jail. The DNR placed Koenigs on administrative leave Thursday. DNR communications director Sarah Hoye declined further comment.
The DNR hired Koenigs as a fisheries technician for its Oshkosh office in 2008, and named him the Winnebago System’s sturgeon biologist in 2012. He’s been popular with the region’s sturgeon anglers and media, who dubbed him the DNR’s “Sturgeon General.”
Five days earlier on Feb. 5, prosecutors in Fond du Lac County at the foot of Lake Winnebago charged three caviar processors with unlawful sale of game fish. Facing misdemeanor charges are Shawn Wendt, 51; Mary Schneider, 87; and Victor Schneider, 88. Their court cases are set for April.
Mary Schneider told investigators in January 2020 that she and her husband process caviar for “halves,” meaning they keep half of what each customer drops off in lieu of money. They said they processed about 170 pounds of sturgeon eggs one year. The complaint said a DNR warden warned them about bartering their caviar services in 2012, but alleges they continued doing it.
Wendt, whose family operates Wendt’s On the Lake restaurant in Van Dyne, told investigators he had been processing sturgeon eggs for customers for free for 15 years. In return, they gave him leftovers to serve at his bar. The warden told Wendt state law forbids serving sturgeon caviar or other wild game to customers at clubs, taverns, restaurants, or boarding houses without a wild-game serving permit.
The Winnebago System is world-renowned for its robust sturgeon population. The DNR sold 12,721 spearing licenses for the February 2020 season, and spearers registered 811 sturgeon. Sturgeon speared during the 2020 season averaged 50 pounds and measured nearly 5 feet long. This year’s season opens Saturday, Feb. 13.
Sources said the DNR’s investigation began in 2017 when sturgeon caviar found in Iowa was traced to a woman in Neenah, Wisconsin, who is widely known for processing sturgeon roe for spearers.
The woman was named in the DNR’s Feb. 10 criminal complaint, but has not been charged. That complaint accuses Koenigs of making untruthful statements to investigating wardens from the Wisconsin DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Statement when questioned between January and June 2020. The complaint alleges Koenigs provided sturgeon eggs to processors “for his personal benefit and consumption,” but mentions no financial benefits.
The complaint says Koenigs told investigators he took spearers’ sturgeon eggs to the woman and two other processors, but not for financial gain. Koenigs said the only eggs he took to processors were those used in a long-term fertility study of the Winnebago System’s sturgeon population that his predecessor, Ronald Bruch, began in 2005. He said he delivered the eggs to specific processors at the spearers’ request after completing his analysis. Koenigs said he didn’t barter any eggs, but “gifted some caviar” to a processor for his work.
Koenigs also told investigators he put the woman’s name on handout sheets at sturgeon registration stations so spearers knew where to deliver eggs they wanted processed into caviar. Koenigs supervised about 60 DNR staff assigned to seven registration stations around Lake Winnebago, and three on the “upriver lakes” of Poygan, Winneconne, and Butte des Morts.
Koenigs told investigators that local processors often gave DNR fisheries staff caviar to thank them for their work at the agency’s registration stations. He said the woman packaged the finished caviar in 4- to 8-ounce jars, and gave him 20 to 30 jars each year for distribution. Another processor Koenigs worked with, a retired DNR biologist, also provided Koenigs caviar to share after keeping some for himself. Both processors said they often kept caviar in lieu of payment for their work.
When contacted for this article, several retired DNR staff said it wasn’t unusual to share caviar samples at meetings, taverns, and other public events to encourage people to maximize their use of each sturgeon. Even though a popular lakeside tavern sports a sign stating “Where poor people eat caviar,” not every spearer covets it. Therefore, agency staff considered samples an “educational” use of a resource that would otherwise be destroyed.
The criminal complaint, however, said current DNR staff stored sturgeon eggs at registration stations for local processors, and DNR log sheets listed the processors’ names. In one case, a third processor kept a cooler at a registration station to collect sturgeon eggs. Koenigs told investigators he didn’t know of any DNR staff taking custody of sturgeon eggs on behalf of processors, but that it crossed his mind that at least one processor “might be selling sturgeon eggs/caviar.” The complaint, however, cited no known sales.
Koenigs also said he didn’t know the processor whose name was written on the cooler, or what he looks like. He only knew that the man processes sturgeon eggs into caviar. Koenigs said he never spoke to the man by telephone, but investigators found he had called the processor from his work and personal telephones. When investigators shared those phone records, Koenigs said he didn’t know why he had called the man.
Investigators seized Koenigs’ DNR-issued cell phone June 17, 2020, while executing a search warrant. They learned he had performed a “factory reset” on the phone April 30 without the agency’s approval. The reset wiped out the phone’s data between then and its issue date, Jan. 22, 2019, including the weeks after investigators interviewed him, DNR staff, and the processors. DNR work rules define such resets to be “unauthorized destruction of department records or files.”
The warrant also uncovered a notebook in Koenigs’ home with a handwritten reminder that read: “Radio etiquette be aware of what you are saying on radio Wardens can tune into this station on their radio.”
Koenigs couldn’t be reached for comment for this article. By all accounts, however, he is popular with anglers and conservation groups in the region. Dan Groeschel, 79, of Fond du Lac is president of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, a popular sportsmen’s organization he helped form in 1977. Sturgeon for Tomorrow helps fund the DNR’s sturgeon-related habitat work and research projects.
“I don’t know the particulars of the case, but Ryan Koenigs is an excellent person and skilled biologist,” Groeschel said. “We enjoy working with him. He knows sturgeon, he’s intelligent and he seems very honest. It seems that law-enforcement wants to shut down all caviar processors, but I’ll reserve judgment on everyone until we know all the facts and the whole story.”
Paul Muche, a board member for Sturgeon for Tomorrow, called the charge against Koenigs “a disaster,” and said Koenigs does unbelievable work. “He wouldn’t do anything bad,” Muche said. “When he attends our banquets and wins a door prize in a drawing, he won’t even accept it. He said he can’t accept any kind of gifts from the public. This whole thing is ridiculous.”
Wayne Jeidy, a retired conservation warden, worked on the Winnebago System for most of his 25-year career until retiring in 2003. Jeidy said once citizens give sturgeon meat or eggs to the DNR or individual staff, it becomes state property. It cannot go back into private hands unless the agency employee follows state protocols.
Jeidy said the carcasses (meat) of walleyes or salmon that die when DNR biologists strip their eggs for hatchery programs typically go into landfills. During his tenure, Jeidy also used DNR “red tags” when selling road-killed or nuisance-killed deer to citizens for $25.
“No one likes seeing resources get wasted, but agencies have to follow the same rules as everyone,” Jeidy said.
Laurel Steffes served as the DNR’s director of information and education before retiring in December 2012. She said initial media reports on the DNR’s case against Koenigs “overstate” the complaint, but she didn’t think the DNR itself was overreacting.
“The agency cannot and will not tolerate questionable practices—no matter how small—or actions taken under the pretense of saving resources from waste,” Steffes said. “Even a whiff of impropriety can undermine the DNR’s authority and public support of all of its programs.”